“Thorns” by Hillary Cusack

Rebecca Job sipped the last of her black coffee. Outside her kitchen window was a decaying garden and an early May chill— the perfect weather for planting—but still she sat. The fenced-in patch of wilting flowers and browning bushes was motionless, except for what appeared to be a small blonde head bobbing between the rows.

“Hey!” Rebecca called, exerting herself to lean out the window, “Who’s back there?”

A child’s face, rosy and dirt-streaked, popped up from amid the desolation. She looked like she belonged to the garden with a dirty yellow dress and bare feet twined around the roots. Rebecca couldn’t make out the particulars, but she guessed this was one of the many children who lived in the house across the street. The face moved closer. It was a young girl, no older than four, surely.

“I like your garden!” the girl said while holding up a limp weed.

“Hardly likeable in this state,” Rebecca said under her breath, but then addressed the child, “Why are you here?”

“Your yard smells funny,” the child answered, scrunching up her nose.

“Trespassing and rude. Wonderful.” Rebecca eased herself out of her chair and shuffled outside, intent on shooing the girl out. She moved around the dead plants, taking special care to avoid the prickly rosebush she hadn’t yet uprooted. When she stopped, the girl sat back down.

Realizing that the child wasn’t going to leave, Rebecca wished she could just reach down and picked her up around the waist. Instead, she tried to give her greatest impression of a total kook.
“RAAHH!” she screamed, and the little girl scampered across the road in a fit of terror. Rebecca called out a stern reminder after the girl, telling her to never set foot in her garden again. Once the neighbor’s door slammed, she turned around, angrily rubbing her eyes with the backs of her hands.

Rebecca stormed up the stairs into the dark, empty bedroom on the second floor. They had sold the crib, but there was still a small box in the corner with things her husband Isaac couldn’t convince her to let go of. She rummaged through the box, shoving the doll aside and tossing the ultrasounds on the floor until she found what she’d been looking for. There at the bottom was a tiny, pink pair of gardening gloves.

The day she found out she was pregnant, Rebecca stopped at the Home Depot on her way home from the doctor’s office. She bought them on a whim, imagining the tiny hands that would fill them. She’d babbled to anyone who would listen about what names she liked, how far along she was, and in general, was unable to keep quiet. The cashier smiled and had wrapped the gloves up in green tissue paper before wishing Rebecca a good day. Now, Rebecca pulled the tissue paper off the gloves and sat on the ground, still as the trees dying outside.

She say there for hours stroking the bumpy material. She stayed there until it grew dark and her husband’s car door slammed in the driveway. In a flurry of activity, she stashed the gloves back and hobbled downstairs to look like she’d been preparing supper. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d be angry at her for being in the abandoned room.

The next afternoon while scrubbing dishes, Rebecca noticed a pair of little feet dangling from one of the lower branches of the elm tree.

Rebecca rested her head on the overhead cabinet and closed her eyes, taking what should have been a deep, calming breath. Then, hoping to scare the girl off without leaving the house, she rapped on the window to get the girl’s attention and shouted, “What are you doing back there?”

The girl dangled upside-down from the branch and cocked her head in answer. Same yellow dress, Rebecca noticed, though she was currently seeing a new side of it thanks to gravity and a lack of feminine manners on the girl’s part.

The things I do for this garden, she grumbled to herself as she slowly made her way to the base of the tree, gingerly sidestepping the overgrown rhododendron.

“Down. Now.”

The girl flipped nimbly and landed on her feet, having the sense to look ashamed under Rebecca’s cold glare.

“I thought we talked yesterday about how my garden is not your playground.”

“Uh-huh,” she shuffled her feet.

“So do you want to tell me why you’re here in my tree today?”

“Well you see, my brudder said I hadda scram. And if he says scram, well, you scram. So I kinda hid in your tree.”

Rebecca’s cheeks reddened. She’d heard how heated the arguments could get among the family members across the street. She really couldn’t fault the kid for not wanting to be around when they got
to fighting.

“What’s your name, anyways?” If the girl was going to stick around, Rebecca might as well know.

“I’m Lily,” Lily said. “It’s ok if you mix us up though, Mamma says Melly and I look the same, even though Melly is bigger and goes to school and…”

Such a simple question had unlocked the child’s mouth, and she prattled on incessantly for nearly a half hour. By that time, the sun was getting unbearably hot and Rebecca was desperate for a way to end the conversation. She saw the rusty hoe leaning against the fence and for a fraction of a second she considered asking the girl to help her in the garden. Then she thought better of it; the girl would probably just dig a big hole and burry Rebecca in it. Her second thought, though cheap and selfish, came through instead. Putting a hand on her stomach, she plastered on her best ‘sick’ face.

“Lily? Miss J isn’t feeling very well. I’ve been sort of sick, recently.”

Lily’s eyes grew wide as she looked down at Rebecca’s large stomach, nodding. “You gotta take a nap?”

Rebecca latched onto the suggestion as she moved towards the door. “Yes Lily, that’s it. I need a nap.”

The girl fidgeted with her fingers for a moment before asking, “Can I nap too?”

Rebecca almost said no, but then heard the sound of glass shattering from across the street, followed by a loud bellow. She caved. “Yeah, come on in. I’ve got a couch for each of us.”

Lily tiptoed over the threshold, looking around with wide eyes. Rebecca guided her into the living room and grabbed two blankets she liked from the loveseat. But after Rebecca tucked Lily in and had settled down herself, the girl kicked off her own blanket and snuggled up to Rebecca. Her tiny form fit perfectly against the slight, hollow curve of Rebecca’s front. As Rebecca settled in to the new position (there wasn’t much point in arguing), she wrapped her arm around the girl and breathed.

She’d missed this warmth, the tiny body attempting to get comfortable, the heartbeats. She bit her lip. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend that this little life surrounding her was actually inside, growing.

Rebecca buried her face into the girl’s soft, yellow hair. Lily stiffened for a moment, then heard sniffle noises. She was no stranger to sniffle noises in bed. Slowly, she began to stroke the back of the woman’s hand until they both drifted off to sleep.

A different sleep, eons ago, Rebecca was having a dream about her garden, the kind she always had the last time she was pregnant. She watered the flowers gently and watched the rose bush stretch its leaves towards the sky. But something went wrong with the hose, and the water started pouring out at a furious pace, drowning the garden.

Rebecca woke up to wet, bloody sheets. The pain in her stomach was rivaled only by her panic as Isaac ran every red light in their dash to the hospital. The nurse on duty that night rushed her to the front of the line when she saw Rebecca’s formerly blue pajamas stained a deep purple. Five months along. A baby could survive when born that early, right? Rebecca tried to do the math as the doctors explained what an emergency c-section was. They put the anesthetic mask over her nose to keep her from the answer.

When she woke in the recovery room the next day, she didn’t need to ask. Her stomach was round as ever, but she couldn’t feel the movements, didn’t feel the heartbeats. Anyway, her husband, Isaac’s face would have given it away if her other senses failed.

“I got to hold her,” he whispered quietly as the anguish ripped across his features. “When they told me there was nothing they could do, they gave her to me.”

Rebecca remembers her moan of pain in that moment. “I begged them to wake you,” he said, balling his fists against his thighs, “but they wouldn’t. I told them you needed to hold her. See how beautiful she was with your own eyes.”

Rebecca pressed the heels of her palms deep into her eye sockets, willing his words away. Isaac touched her hand.

“I named her Rose,” he said, “I know we fought about it, but that’s what you wanted. I couldn’t say anything else when they asked.”

“Get out,” Rebecca said, biting off the words. When Isaac didn’t react immediately, she swung the arm that wasn’t tied up to an IV machine at him to make her point. The few doctors who tried to subdue her received the same treatment. One of the nurses stabbed her with a sedative and suddenly the world moved slowly, forcing her to recognize it wasn’t just the stitches that were hurting. She rubbed her hand over her belly as she welcomed unconsciousness.

The day after the impromptu nap, Lily wandered up to Rebecca’s house and got to stay. In fact, she got to stay every day for the rest of the summer, developing a sort of symbiosis with the woman, sharing life through some strange connection. One day, Rebecca taught Lily how play checkers.

“King me!” Lily would shout while hopping around on one foot, her version of a victory dance. Shortly after, Lily forced Rebecca to come up with her own victory dance to be used those few times she didn’t let Lily win. As her stomach scars faded, the dance became more and more vigorous, looking something like a peacock’s mating ritual.

Rebecca relearned how to blow bubbles one hot day in June when Lily spilled dish soap on top of the sprinkler in the front yard. The girls giggled as they tried to create the largest bubble with string and cups, and soon their whole bodies became slick with soap and they needed to run under the water all over again.

Lily, tired of tripping on her sister’s hand-me-down sneaker laces, learned how to tie her shoes that Fourth of July.

“…around the rabbit hole, in, and through,” Rebecca had coached every day for nearly a month. The day Lily came over with tied shoes, they did a joint victory dance and celebrated by flagging down the ice cream truck for red, white, and blue popsicles.

Lily taught Rebecca how to laugh that August. Between the dancing, playing, and imagining, Rebecca learned to forget the last time her stomach hurt so much. Now she held her sides to keep them from splitting with joy.

By the day before Lily’s first day of preschool, she could name all the colors in Rebecca’s garden, even if she still wasn’t allowed in it. It was that day on the cusp of autumn that Rebecca went back to the dark box in the second floor bedroom. Lily showed up just after breakfast like usual, just missing Isaac leaving the house for work. When she rang the doorbell, Rebecca’s voice called to her from the backyard. She crawled under the little gate to find the woman elbow deep in a pile of weeds.

“Miss J?” Lily asked with a frown. She hadn’t ever been Rebecca working in the garden.

Rebecca glowed as she wiped a smear of dirt off her face, “Lily! I have something for you.”

Lily followed Rebecca’s now even gait onto the porch, where she was instructed to close her eyes and open her hand. She bounced up and down instead. Miss J, after all, had never given her a present before. When she finally complied, she could feel something rough and bumpy in her hands with a bit of Velcro at one end.

“Ooo, pink!” Lily squealed after opening her eyes.

“I hoped you would want to help me with a project, Lily,” Rebecca said, moving back down into the jungle.

“What’s that?” Lily asked, following her.

“I need to tear up this garden.” Rebecca had come to the decision last night, tossing and turning over images of dead petunias.

“You mean you want me to dig in the dirt?” Lily asked warily eyeing the forbidden land.

“Oh yes,” Rebecca said, “The trees stay, but everything needs to get ripped out. Do you want to help?”

Lily somersaulted into the dirt as her answer. For the rest of the afternoon, the army of two dug up all the dead plants, singing while they worked and filling bag after bag with the garden’s carcasses.

Later that afternoon, when Isaac went into the house and didn’t receive an answer to his calls, he checked out back and almost choked in shock. There, amid a battlefield of dirt clods and dead plants was his wife, sleeping under the only plant left, the rosebush, with a strange girl curled up in the roots.


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